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Dangal: Celebrating An India We Have Forgotten


The opening scene of Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal has a young Mahavir Singh Phogat priming himself up for an office brawl. He has left wrestling but we are told, wrestling has not left him. And so like a fighter in an akhada, he crouches, his eyes focused and unblinking and makes a little gesture to pull up his trousers so he can move unhindered.  And in this infinitesimal  moment, Aamir Khan takes you right into the soul of a man who is steeped in the pure joy of wrestling. After the bout, he extends his hand to his splayed opponent, reminding you of that moment in Dil Chahta Hai when he offered the same courtesy to a rival who had pushed him too far. When he cycles back to his village, you remember the young cycling champ of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander. When the  David and Goliath analogy is invoked, you remember Lagaan and a pattern emerges of an actor who likes stories about unlikely winners and underdogs nobody thinks much of.


Be it PK or Rancho, you remember the characters who took on a world entrenched in dogma. But then Dangal is not about Aamir Khan. There is a hugely moving scene where his Mahavir, now aged and overweight…takes on his arrogant, young daughter. He has the fight but not the stamina. Watch him as he desperately pants for air, his jowly face ruddy, his body caving in and not a single precedent comes to mind where a leading male star was taken down by a young, unknown actor. Female to boot. You see a lot of frames where he has his bulky back to the camera as he waits for the right moment to move or to say something. Even in the final battle that Geeta Phogat (played admirably by Fatima Sana Shaikh) fights, the focus is not on him but her. Unlike a recent, supposedly feminist film where the climax served a male legend more than the women he was supposedly fighting for.


That said, this really is a film about a story worth telling. A story that goes beyond Bollywood’s slavish addiction to stereotypical pandering to male mythology and box office numbers. A story about an India that we rarely see in our films. An India where the antenna on the roof once upon a time needed to be moved by hand if you wanted to watch TV with clear transmission. Where luxury and privilege are just words and struggle is a way of life.  An India that most assembly line plots produced by Yash Raj and Dharma (with a few exceptions) have no clue about.


This is a film that smells of the earth, swaying fields, cramped homes full of lacks and sacrifices from where so many of our sports stars emerge with fire in their bellies. Homes where so many of us grew up in. And small town neigbouroods where our dreams collided with convention. The production design captured by cinematographer Sethu Sriram perhaps owes its unvarnished truthfulness to the fact that director Nitesh Tiwari is from Itarsi and not South Bombay. The writing is earthy too, the dialogue free from verbosity and the songs are situational and work well especially the opening track that takes us into the lives of unknown, impoverished wrestlers struggling to shine.


That we needed a film like this more than ever is clear from the fact that not far from Patiala’s Netaji Subhash National Institute of Sports, where Geeta and Babita Kumari trained to realise their medal dreams, is Bhathinda, where a pregnant dancer died recently after being shot in the head by a guest at a wedding function. After she refused to dance with him. In Uttar Pradesh too, a woman was beaten in public for resisting molestation. In a country where cinematic heroism is mostly a male prerogative, where in life and on the screen, the narrative about women centres around their anatomy rather than their spirit, Dangal treats women as fighters and not fantasies. Their bodies are not sexualised to titillate and we see  their muscles brimming with power and more importantly we see their hearts that know no fear.

There is also that moment where a bunch of female athletes are sighing over the pivotal moment in the most revisited love story of our times (yes DDLJ again!) and Geeta looks confused because her mental diet has not included Bollywoodised romance. A little speech about gender inequality just before a bout also recalls a similar moment in Chak De India, a film that also took us in a space where women with aggression and ambition were treated not as anomalies but normal and a male superstar served the story rather than being served by it.
But this happens much later in the film. Before that comes a significant shift in the way Mahavir’s resentful young daughters see themselves when a teenaged girl about to be bundled off prematurely in an arranged marriage tells them that their father is not oppressing them but fighting for them against the oppression of women who are expected to serve and breed but to never wrestle fate on an equal footing.  Mahavir is a bit like Bela Karolyi, a gymnastics coach known to be tough and controversial but one who transformed young, promising school girls like Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton into international champions. In fact, the story has many similarities with Bela’s relationship with his girls and their disapproving coaches who did not like him shouting instructions from the sidelines.
Aamir’s Mahavir true to the spirit of the film, is a character so rooted in the story that it is hard to see the actor creating it. From a wistful young husband sighing before a wall full of wrestling memories, he becomes a father driven to drive his daughters towards a future nobody can fathom to a patriarch who will say little but exude pain and warmth and anger with just hunched or squared shoulders, with a walk that shuffles, a body that is like an imposing, forbidding wall but also a rock that protects, shelters, watches over. This is an actor who has understood the importance of using the physicality of a character to reach his soul. And the importance to say more with less. With just a raised eyebrow, a clenched fist, hands locked behind the back. His process is too detailed to be totally discovered or uncovered but it is a joy to watch him.
Sakshi Tanwar is effortlessly effective as a supportive spouse and mother and Fatima as Geeta and Sanya Malhotra as Babita have poured themselves into their roles. The ensemble cast including Aparshakti Khurrana is well-picked. Yes, the film tampers with the actual story to make it a bit more entertaining, more cinematic but it works because it has a mighty heart and is well-intentioned. It is a film about parenting. About finding motivation in dust. It is about dreams that are not gender defined.  And it reminds us that women can be nurturers like Sakshi Tanwar’s Daya Shobha Kaur and also warriors like Geeta who gets an anthem of her own when she first starts winning dangal bouts and later, a medal and a place in history to call her own. Watch this one.
Reema Moudgil is the editor and co-founder of Unboxed Writers, the author of Perfect Eight, the editor of  Chicken Soup for the Soul-Indian Women, a  translator who recently interpreted  Dominican poet Josefina Baez’s book Comrade Bliss Ain’t Playing in Hindi, an  RJ  and an artist who has exhibited her work in India and the US and is now retailing some of her art at http://paintcollar.com/reema. She won an award for her writing/book from the Public Relations Council of India in association with Bangalore University, has written for a host of national and international magazines since 1994 on cinema, theatre, music, art, architecture and more. She hopes to travel more and to grow more dimensions as a person. And to be restful, and alive in equal measure.

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1 Comment

  1. January 10, 2017    

    This is a wonderful review of the movie Dangal. Thank you Ma’am Reema for such a lovely take on the movie….!

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